Here’s looking at you kid!

By Simon Hughes, Vice Chair BVEP

I wonder what Humphrey Bogart would make of it all? The year started badly for the organisers of the Presidents Club Charity Dinner, when the FT published the results of their investigation into this 33 year old event. Past tense now though after the undercover reporters from the FT revealed details of how the 130 hostesses were treated – from the instructions about the clothes they should wear to the appalling behaviour they were subjected to by some of the guests. Groping, lewd comments and invites to bedrooms made the headlines. These in turn made some of the charities that benefitted from the money raised refuse to accept the donations.


Toxic – yet very much part of a much broader societal issue that has swept through the entertainment, media, business, government and charity sectors – all fuelled by scandals that have heightened attention over sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment . The abuse and sexual objectification of women is firmly on the agenda and we’ve seen an immediate response from across the events industry.

The organisers of both Formula One races and darts championships in Britain have announced that they will no longer use female models to stand next to drivers or accompany players on stage. Cue Clarkson going purple, but as Formula One said it was ending the use of walk-on models because the custom "does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms".

Unfortunately some of the exhibitors at the ICE Totally Gaming event held earlier this month at Excel hadn’t spotted this shift, despite encouragement from the show organisers to represent women more respectfully. The Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission, Sarah Harrison, branded the use of scantily clad women on the show floor as “unacceptable”. She added that the Commission might consider boycotting future events unless there was a change in policy.

Other organisers have realised that this is a real issue that they need to confront, such as
UK Construction Week which has released a new code of conduct to promote greater equality, diversity and inclusion. It came under fire on social media over the presence of showgirls on one stand at their annual trade show last year. The show’s director, Nathan Garnett, was very clear in media interviews when he stated "It's the wrong image for the industry to portray”. He added "We got it wrong last year, and faced criticism on social media. So we're still learning too,"

The new guidelines suggest that companies attending the show need to consider the mix of exhibition stand staff they bring in terms of gender, age and ethnicity. Additionally stands with a theme deemed inappropriate or that objectify women would be closed, according to organisers of the show that attracts more than 600 exhibitors every year, adding that clothing for all staff must be appropriate for a business event.

And there is the rub as far as I’m concerned – because I’m just as guilty as anyone else when it comes to tackling this issue. I still wake up in the middle of the night sometimes sweating about “Heel Gate”. A few years ago the top flight designer we’d used for a massive international trade event had looked at every touch point and detail of the delegate experience and specified the clothes required for the mixed group of hosts we’d be deploying. Classic British designed suits, in black and white. High heels for the women of course, as they set off both trousers and skirts to perfection in terms of line. I love designers.

Midway through day one I noticed that all of the female hostesses were looking really miserable and very unhappy; this wasn’t the look we wanted our guests to be greeted with. It turned out it was the high heels. They were simply not use to standing around in them at the events they worked at normally, so they were really suffering. Luckily a quick shopping trip into town solved the problem and all the heels were replaced with much more comfortable and practical flats. Cue smiling hostesses and indignant designer.

The lessons from all this? These days you can never be too careful when it comes to planning events. The range of issues that you need to consider and the negative impact that can be caused by not covering all the bases thoroughly can be huge. We are increasingly working in risk management as much as event management. We need to be mindful, appropriate and considerate in our creative solutions more than ever before. And a final thought too is that we have an excellent and very professional source of experienced event hosts available to us in the UK from temporary staffing agencies that really do care about their people and pride themselves on working to deliver great customer experiences. Rick Blaine would be proud of them – and we should be too.